There we were in this plain white vehicle truckin’ northbound on the I-69 with oversized Starbucks cups in our hands (unfortunately, without those there would be absolutely no coffee in Indiana, a very sad fact it seems), whizzing past corn fields and Rest Areas and strange taxonomies of roadkill that accumulated every few hundred yards or so on the highway’s shoulders (I’m convinced Indiana has more roadkill than any other state in the U.S. – after forcing Wes to open his eyes while driving we spotted three mangled little corpses blur past us in a single second followed immediately by a broken down Oldsmobile, the perfect exclamation point to all that ended up there and would never make it across the road), squirrels, raccoons, mice, gophers, rabbits, cats, drivers (who knows what else) … the road to Flint was already a stroll through a long cemetery.
When Wes, Nihal, and I headed up there a few weeks ago I couldn’t wait to pick up on that geography of urban ruins that weaves so many of my interests together about architecture, global economies, lost histories, indigenous culture, systemic poverty, the road trip, contexts of abandonment, informal communities, urban salvagers, and so on.
As you know, Wes has been paying close attention to Flint over the last couple of years, he says he’s photographed literally thousands of abandoned houses there, some that have just remained boarded up for years, others that have been tagged with For Sale signs from hustlers trying to collect money on structures they don’t even own. Still, some homes are being moved into by neighbors looking to upgrade next door just as the occupants have left the property. There are owners who are defiant, scared, territorial, proud, some who want to keep their homes and those who pray for demolition, and in many ways Flint is just another shade of New Orleans caught in between states of devastation and piddly renewal. Though instead of having been flooded, it’s all dried up instead.
Like I said, the highway out of Indianapolis towards Flint, which you basically take all the way, is like a migration killzone; a fatal border fence for rodents and transients of all kinds. It was a little creepy heading up towards one of the nation’s most notorious urban voids with dead animals spread all over the road along the way. There was this dingy suggestion of an ongoing mass exodus from Flint where life is regularly forced to flee but unable to get far before meeting a collective nomadic tragedy piled together a couple hundred miles down the main highway. I wondered how often these carcasses were hauled off - had they been left for weeks or were they really stacking up that quickly?
Nevermind. We swilled our white chocolate lattes and tried to hold them in our bladders until the next John on down the way.
On the road we all got to talking and Nihal Perera, an urban planning professor at Ball State (and an all around great guy whom you will get to know more in the future) told us a little about his research into the “tiger landscape” and how various spaces of civil war have been distributed in Sri Lanka, his native country. Fascinating stuff: the ways that landscape incorporates separatism and civilian forms of bordering and occupation. He is also examining how Asian cities are undergoing their own distinct patterns of urbanization challenging the notion that American urbanism is taking over the global landscape, all of which we will be hearing more about in days to come, as well. But it made for a crazy overlay en route to our encounter with Flint.
Of course, the question on everyone's mind that afternoon was how do you treat a landscape that suffers from so much urban evaporation? What are the psychological and cultural sensitivities of addressing wholesale abandonment this way? How do we even begin to look at such a place, or know that we are even really seeing it for what it is beyond the hollowness of its remains?
In a report Wes produced on the topic called Deconstructing Flint (which he presented at Postopolis!) specifically looking at the ways architects might proceed with a more humane / conscious/ and ecological strategy of demolition, in his estimate "the story of Flint’s decline is rather simple." He noted that in the time General Motors operated in Flint from early in the twentieth century, "the company’s ascent drove the worker-citizens to unparalleled personal, familial, and communal gains." Job production skyrocketed after World Wars I/II with enormous increases in automobile demand. "At its peak in the 1960s," he told me, "Flint was home to 190,000 persons and 80,000 General Motors’ jobs, and was believed to be on its way to a population of 250,000. Today, Flint’s population is at 120,000," he said. Half of its hopeful estimate. Today close to 17,000 GM jobs remain, though plants are closing left and right. "No one is sure if the bottom has been reached or if it is even in sight."
As we got closer Wes filled us in on a buddy of his we were hoping to meet up with once we got there. If there is life left in Flint, Wes told us, then Brian Willingham is it. Our plan was to drive around and take in the sheer vastness of the abandoned neighborhoods, the gridded emptiness, to see firsthand the stretches of serial depression, the gradual stages of decay that began as early as the fifties. I wondered, could we somehow measure the psychological ramifications by driving round and round the city's dying blocks, and past the GM plants that have mostly long been closed (but not as dead as you might think)? Basically, I just wanted to cruise and experience the vacuous heart valves and caved in lung scapes of the old industrial engine that once kept the shrinking city of Flint breathing strong.
And so, that’s just what we would do – roll around and soak in the place whilst trying not to be too blatantly obvious with our BSU marked sedan and our pocket sized cameras looking like suspicious developers or snoopy city officials busy plotting and re-planning the fates of the locals’ lives right under their noses.
Beforehand I gandered at some of Wes' research just to give myself a better sense of what to expect. Having read from his report in the car, I'll relay this:
Many, if not most, of the houses being demolished and in need of demolition were constructed using low quality materials and techniques. According to Beckley, following WWI and WWII, “small poorly constructed housing was quickly erected on narrow lots, close to the factories that provided employment.” These never were high quality houses. It can be argued that these buildings, long ago, fulfilled their original mission.
Hard, comprehensive numbers are difficult to establish due to the number of actors involved, the time that has passed, and the daunting work that lies ahead. A mayoral aide in Flint stated in late 2006 that City crews tear down two to seven houses every working day. A City of Flint demolition crew chief told me that 4,000 houses need to be torn down “today” and another 10,000 will need to be torn down in the future.
Quantity of demolition waste produced in Flint is significant: 200 cubic yards of waste/house x 5 houses/day (+/-) x 5 work days/week x 52 weeks = 260,000 cubic yards/year. That’s equivalent to a standard city block in Manhattan covered with a block of house debris the height of a 3-story building, or a 15-story building the size of an American football field. Every year.
The number of houses and other properties that are or will be in need of demolition in coming years is staggering. Again, it has been said that 4,000 houses are in need of immediate demolition. One can imagine that 10,000 buildings will need to be torn down in coming years. At the rate of 2-7 teardowns/day, 5 days/week, that’s approximately 1,300/year, or enough houses to keep crews busy for the next 3 years. Plus many hundreds if not thousands more are likely to be abandoned and boarded in coming years.
It should be remembered that the Land Bank pays between $6,000 and $9,000 to tear down and haul away a house.
It's one thing to read these numbers and to try and envision their architectural translation. But, it is another thing altogether to actually see these stats as they are represented physically, as they are naturally positioned in their origins of meaning - these places of urban death.
Once we got there we found some grub and planned on trying to meet up with Brian at the Brown Sugar Café later that afternoon, a new spot enjoying a little success from the recent inner core of urban investment that is beginning to take place near the university area downtown, while however further severing the outer districts from progress, into what Brian would later allude to as “The Two Flints of Michigan.”
With a hot corned beef sandwich stuffed in my belly we spent hours slowly ambling past old elementary schools that looked like they’d been closed for years (but also as if they had the money they could be re-opened and suddenly re-populated in a second). Strange, really. It’s quite startling to see places persisting in this kind of semi-abandoned shuttered state of urban limbomania – seeing spaces as essentially helpless.
Flint is covered in parking lots and sidewalks with public phone booths hollowed and conquered by wild grass and weeds. Apartment complexes look like they actually vacillate from day-to-day in and out of being open and closed, by people who have a job one day but not the next. In fact, the whole city has this feeling of living day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, of collectively watching itself house-by-house fall into disrepair; Flint is growing quieter, more sparse, in some ways it looks almost colonial again – like dense homesteads plopped down in the fields. They are historic vintage.
On a larger scale there are entire superstores that have been burnt out from the inside while a nearby video store looks to have just closed (maybe for a portion of the day, or for the winter season alone) and become someone’s home only the day before. Firewood filled the foyers and porch spaces of some houses, tired grandmothers kept refuge in others. Odd piles of collected furniture were pilfered on the corners while teens swept the sidewalks into massive mounds of anonymous memory and debris. Across the street tiny shotgun homes were naked, core structures exposed, picked apart by scrappers with a few occasional shacks in between their lots reduced to massive pits in the ground - their foundations uprooted in a giant scooping instant.
Flint seems like a forgotten graveyard waiting to die even more, as if at any time an army of vulture-like bulldozers might swoop in and demolish everything over the course of a week, before the burial grounds are reseeded and made into grassed over parcels of land ready to be abandoned all over again.
It's a heavy duty place like that. And no matter how much you look at it you never seem to figure out an answer to the plaguing question of what the hell should be done with Flint?
Most houses, however, stand still solid in their construction and become the nightmares of firestarters and angry neighbors instead, they become the haunted playhouses of innocent little children, the nondescript safehouses of heinous criminals and nocturnal ghost dogs, while somewhere out there a lonely shack manages to stash the legacy of some poor unremembered family, until it is discovered, thrashed, knocked down and hauled away in the back of some truck.
For all that is closed in Flint if there is any one thing you can count on being open, or in abundance even, it is the liquor store sadly enough. And while that alone is not surprising or even unique to Flint, what is unbelievable is the sheer number of liquor stores in a given range of blocks. I try to relate the phenomenon to the number of Starbucks you find in downtown San Francisco in just a couple of blocks. You might think liquor stores were the only things left operating in these parts of the city. Contrasted by all this cloned space of residential nothingness, this was an astounding visceral reality – I wonder, how many lives are completely sustained on a day-to-day basis by the liquor stores? One store we stumbled across was entirely wrapped in heavy duty barbed wire guarded against what I imagine to be thieves who were getting in from the rooftop somehow. But it looked like such a last ditch effort, like everyone and everything was equally desperate.
After somehow missing Brian’s call we hung around a bit more at a muscle car show in the little downtown area on S Saginaw St., which is where the Genesee County Land Bank is located as well. Some classic Def Leopard blasted over loudspeakers and reverberated in a very cool way off the surrounding buildings - you could almost hear the vacant dimensions of Flint echoing in the melodies of High 'n Dry and Pyromania. There was a booth that sold iced cold Genuine Drafts in a can, prepackaged sandwiches, antique car calendars, and random auto-fetish crap and memorabilia, messy piles on tables overrun by army recruiter propaganda: posters, pins, photographs of soldiers with their families and platoons, patches, magazines, videos, Army Strong's seductive schmooze. I could probably have stopped there, signed a few papers and been on a plane to Iraq the next day if I wanted to.
Maybe Flint is the fastest way to get to Baghdad these days, I don’t know.
Be that as it may, it was a vital little scene with a couple hundred people bumming around a parking lot to appreciate those sweet gurgling sounds of a guttural muscle cars and all the shine of buffed chrome that goes along with them.
We were just about to bail when Brian suddenly rang us up from around the corner to give word he was getting off work and would meet up. A minute later he raced by in his SUV honking the horn waving as we dashed back to our vehicle and bolted off to (yes, you guessed it) Starbucks, of all places, on the other side of town.
Apparently, Starbucks loves Flint, too, isn’t that nice? I am not sure what it really means that Starbucks is in Flint (let’s face it, they are the new McDonalds!), nevertheless we were soon downing flavored coffees with cream and sugar again like lecherous academic brats from a great corporate boob.
[Image: Brian Willingham as pictured in The Flint Journal, Jan. 11, 2006.]
At first glance Brian Willingham is not anyone you’d want to cross paths with in a dark alley especially in Flint where poverty has soared so high it’s become the third most dangerous city in the U.S. But then again, Brian isn’t your average cop. In fact, he is the first guy you’d want to meet in a dark Flinted alley.
When not out patrolling the surreptitious spaces of his hometown’s ghosted remains that are often used as cover for the worst crimes imaginable, he’s plopped down on the floor in a classroom reading books to school children and charming the teachers, meeting community leaders, parents and bridging that gap with neighborhood groups in areas where the perception of cops can be less than favorable, to say the least.
He’d just come back from a neighborhood where a skinhead rally in a hard black part of town was potentially going to occur and told us thankfully it never happened today. That by itself is crazy to think about. Skinheads still throw rallies? In Flint? Anyway, he could have been anywhere though, combing an abandoned factory, responding to a disturbance in a home with no address; or, he might have just been out photographing his friends in the park, or writing a poem at the Brown Sugar, speaking at the college again reciting a story about his undying pride in Flint. As I later learned he might have been right here at Starbucks half the day for all I knew working on an article for a column the ‘Human Spirit’ he writes in The Flint Journal.
It goes without saying, homie is one thoughtful dude.
Brian recently won a national award from the White House recognizing his work and commitment as a community policeman in Flint (not exactly a place you'd believe was on their map), which actually only says a little about who he is. It just so happens Brian has also published two books and is busy working on his third. Didn’t take more than a few minutes of hearing his story to see why all of the above is so true.
I mean he's no doubt seen some horrendous stuff in Flint, yet all it seemed to do was reinforce his big-hearted family-man spirit, his colossal humility, his knowledge that he is in the beginning and in the end just a man, a father and a son, a human being before anything else.
[Image: Brian Willingham as pictured in The Flint Journal, March 27, 2005 as he reads to a group of Bryant Elementary children during March is Reading month. Willingham said he likes to spend as much time as possible with kids. "They need black male role models," he said.]
But it wasn't necessarily hearing his story so much as how he told it. Perhaps the only thing that overshadowed Brian’s depth of character was his own modesty. There's something unbreakable in his words, dignified in his mellow tone, he made you feel as important as anyone else. I realized there in a jolt of caffeine that it is not just places like Flint that need Brian, but every city really. He was not trying to sell me anything or convince me of police duty or honor. He was just a man there helping me to understand what it is; the Flint I would never see, the Flint that is invisibly real before all our eyes.
He told me how he first got into poetry by writing love letters to his woman from Germany where he was stationed in the army and saw the Berlin Wall fall. As a kid he was fascinated by the work of photographer Gordon Parks, particularly Half Past Autumn and A Choice of Weapons – the notion that a camera or a pen was a black man’s most powerful weapon in America always resonated with Brian even though he would go on to carry a gun for his country and hometown. But, it was the pioneering work of people like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land that would guide Brian's own way not only of seeing the city, the urban epidemic for black folks, but of capturing it; of responding to its pain, and understanding how even places like Flint are eternally rehumanized by their struggles.
Only when he lost his job for a summer in Flint and his father passed on did he pick up his camera and shoot the photos you'll find in his first book of poetry Thunder Enlightening; deep personal reflections of life there that mirror a greater landscape of American racism stalking much of Flint’s psyche.
A poem comes to mind:
Locked in the city block system,
Subdivided on a lot,
Crowded on a porch,
Not far from the sidewalk,
Close to the curb,
Not far from a streetlight on the corner,
Around the block from the store,
On the corner of some street,
On a cement lot
Not far from the sidewalk
Close to the curb.
When will I be free from these concrete borders?
- Brian Willingham, 2003
Brian expressed his struggles of being a cop, of resisting the force's machinations and managing to stay human. He told us Flint has a 70% drop out rate amongst its high school students; how he raises his own to do honest work for honest pay; how he’s seen his best friends return from jail only to flirt with death for the last time; how prison has even become preferable to some lives there now where alternatives refuse to appear. He explained more the division of The Two Flints: the one that is downtown growing, moving on, finding reasons to be hopeful about the future; a Flint that is actually beginning to breathe again – the Flint that is proudly blue collar and “born to work” he said. Because that's all the people of Flint want and need - work. "They need that much."
And so there is the other Flint, severed further from neighborhood development, marginalized from the new interior regeneration, enslaved to this lingering nostalgia of the auto factories one day resurrecting their jobs to them and their ancestors who have suffered the legacy of Buick for decades. He spoke about the wounded spaces of the lonely children on the street corner, in the alley, on the porch, sobbing in church or over a grave, spaces that have seen his people dwindle further and further from prosperity; the Flint that has been abandoned by its own country, and the people who have been written off to those desolate and unmapped shacks huddling there in ironic habitation.
Despite all of that Brian smiled, adjusted his ball cap and offered stories about placing his hand on the hand of a man who'd already stuck the knife a small ways into his chest, just talking with him and listening to him late one night helping in those dark moments to save Flint from itself when no one else was paying attention.
Spotting someone he knew in the cafe he exchanged a short hello then quickly turned back to us and relayed a story he recently wrote for the local paper, of a black woman who had eventually found the dead body of her son in a backyard one day after he'd been missing for days and assumed to have gone so in the area. Brian then described another woman who was white and lived inside a nearby house but had been too ashamed to come outside and introduce herself much less mourn with the woman for fear that she would be judged and blamed for having not found the body sooner, being it was in her own backyard.
As Willingham told it, the mother of the lost son came there every day afterwards to be with her son’s soul and to help it flee the imprisonment of that spot in the backyard, until finally the neighbor came out after crying for a week alone to tell the mother how sorry she was for having not discovered the body earlier. And without needing to be forgiven the neighbor and mother then forged a deep healing bound and spent the following weeks building together a permanent memorial structure there in the woman's backyard in the boy’s honor. Amazing story.
It’s vignettes like that that tell you who Brian is, about the Human Spirit that refuses to die in Flint. I am reminded of another poem:
Finding The Light
The infractions of humanity upon humanity
Innocent eyes have witnessed all their lives.
Inhumane – unhuman – humanity.
In absence of human guidance,
their spirits still teach them right from wrong,
And still, they may not learn the truth
that lies within their souls until it’s gone.
Physical casualties in mental captivity.
There are the images they can’t forget,
nor can they ease them from their human experience.
Life has expressed and impressed itself upon them,
Abandoning them as they are. Where they are?
The voices of pleasure and destruction sing new songs
about old things,
Weighing themselves evilly in balanced minds,
Beating, pounding, wearing thin the spirit
and soul of young humanity,
Still unconscious bodies carry on, walking forward
but moving backward into darkness,
hoping without hope,
thinking without knowledge,
about finding the light.
- Brian Willingham, 2003
I don’t think it could have been said any better, if there is life in Flint, then certainly Brian Willingham is it. Check out his website The Soul of a Black Cop which happens to be the title of his latest book. If you ever go to Flint ring him up. He alone is reason to visit. In fact, I can think of no better prism for peering into the soul of Flint. I know I will be back there soon enough, but until then I just want to thank Brian again for taking the time out of his Saturday evening to hang out with us and share all his insight and instinct about Flint, which in my experience is what it is because of you, Brian. Thank you. (And to you too Wes for hooking it all up!)
[All pictures except those noted were taken by Bryan Finoki / 2007]